Changing perceptions about sustainable menstruation

Launched during the ongoing pandemic, Avni focuses on menstrual hygiene and the accessibility of sustainable and eco-friendly pads in India.

by Aisiri Amin

When Sujata Pawar started facing some issues such as rashes while using commercial sanitary pads, made of plastic and chemicals, it set in motion her deep dive into their effects on menstruators’ health. While talking to friends and family, she realised how common these issues were and yet how rarely they were voiced. This planted the seed for Avni.

While looking for alternatives, she stumbled upon cloth pads, which were not only reusable but also eco-friendly and sustainable. She had worked on the idea for about a decade but did not imagine that it would launch during a global pandemic.

Avni, founded by Sujata Pawar along with her husband, Apurv Agrawal, is a Thane-based initiative that launched in August 2020. As the platform went live during a global health crisis, Avni started their work with donations and collaborated with various NGOs to increase the reach of sanitary pads during COVID-19.

Sujata Pawar, co-founder of Avni. ©Avni

This menstrual care enterprise focuses on the accessibility of eco-friendly and sustainable menstrual products and educating people about menstruation, a topic that is still discussed behind closed doors and in hushed voices.

Avni also started Project DAAG (Destroying Accessibility & Acceptance Gap), an outreach programme to create awareness around the associated challenges faced during the menstrual cycle. The current campaign under this project is aimed at talking about the inaccessibility of menstrual products among sanitation workers and increasing awareness about safe menstrual practices.

To help menstruators freely talk about their queries and to provide support, Avni also launched a period helpline. Moreover, this month, they announced a new initiative called ‘Collective by Avni’ to provide menstruators with a panel of experts on menstrual practices.

We talked to period activist, Sujata Pawar about the importance of sustainable menstrual products, launching a startup during a global pandemic, and the social impact Avni aims to create.

INKLINE: You mentioned personal experiences that led to this initiative. Could you talk about the problems you faced?

Sujata Pawar: I was experiencing issues such as rashes and irritation while using sanitary products made of plastic. During that time I was doing my Bachelors of Pharmacy. So, I did a lot of research on this product and the issues I experienced. It was then that I realised the problem was much deeper because of the ingredients that are used in these pads. As the vaginal area is very sensitive, anything that comes into contact with it is quickly absorbed. Certain chemicals are used for quicker absorption. Due to these low-quality plastic chemical-loaded pads, the chemicals get absorbed in the body and cause harm.

Moreover, along with increasing access to sustainable and eco-friendly pads, we also focus on educating people about periods. Even today, menstruators hesitate to talk about periods freely. Growing up, no one spoke to me about menstrual health which is the case for many.  We got some anatomical information about the body from our science teacher, but nothing more. I have observed many menstruators having a very negative attitude or feeling about it and even have bad experiences. So we wanted to change that through education.

Avni focuses on making sustainable and eco-friendly menstrual products accessible. ©Avni

I: You employ women from self-help groups to make these pads. Could you talk about how this initiative is benefiting them?

S: As the products are made of cloth, once you source all the fabrics and decide the design, what you need is stitching. So we thought this can be a good initiative to help marginalised women achieve financial freedom. We started engaging self-help groups to create the final product.

Once we start scaling up, we plan to set up more self-help groups especially for making these products. Once the orders increase, we will have to set up a facility dedicated full-time for these products. We have three units right now and across them, we employ 52 to 54 women. Some of them work on a part-time basis because they are a part of other self-help groups.

I: Along with creating sustainable products, your platform focuses on educating people about menstrual hygiene. One of your initiatives, Project DAAG, works towards providing menstrual products to waste pickers. Could you talk about this project?

S: Since we are selling products in the retail market, we thought why not utilise a part of the profits to fund our social impact projects. And so, we launched Project DAAG this year, around the menstrual hygiene week in May. We are intending to use about five to six percent of our profits to make products accessible to menstruators from marginalised communities. Often people are denied access to good quality products because of the taboos attached to the work they do, such as waste pickers or sex workers.

We are trying to reach out to them so that impact is maximised. We do this in two ways. One, education and communication. We talk to them about good hygiene practices and good quality products and the need for those. And then we also make the products available, either through our profits, NGO or corporates. Sometimes people also donate for this purpose so this project is also listed on a crowdfunding platform.

There is a financial divide even in an urban. We must make products that are good quality, soft cotton, chemical-free, even reusables, available to all at a very affordable price. Many menstruators are not aware of the options. For instance, there are times when we speak to house helps or waste pickers about all kinds of products, sanitary pads, cloth pads, and menstrual cups. It’s surprising to see there are a lot of them who choose a cup because they understand that it is going to save them money and they don’t have to change it so often as they often lack access to toilets.

I: How important is the collaboration between accessibility and awareness in making eco-friendly and sustainable menstrual products the popular choice?

S: It is important to start a dialogue about why these products are essential, and how they are beneficial at various stages of life. It should be a two-pronged approach. Just making affordable products available does not help because big brands are doing a lot of advertisements on TV,  talking to them about why women should be jogging and swimming during their periods. And that impacts menstruators a lot.

So when we go to schools, even to just place our sanitary pad dispensers, we make it a point to do a session to make them understand why cloth pads or cups are better. We give them free samples so that if they like them, and they can continue to use them. So this kind of model has always worked best to break that influence that the big brands have on them.

Women from self-help groups are employed to make cloth pads. ©Avni

I: Generally, when we talk about periods, the focus is only on women. Other menstruators such as trans men, genderqueers, and non-binary people are often excluded from the conversation. As a period activist, how do you think we can change this narrative? And are you in any way addressing it in your projects?

S: I completely agree with that. First, it is essential is to just start using certain terms and words that are inclusive such as menstruators. We are also learning to do that. In a lot of online conversations on social media platforms, we try to include diverse voices. We encourage all menstruators to talk about their experiences. Regarding products, we ensure our packaging is gender-neutral. We don’t use any specific colour according to conventional gender standards.

I: What has been the biggest challenge in this journey?

S: A lot of menstruators do not speak about the issues they are facing. Even if they’re not happy with their current products or have questions about new ones, they usually don’t talk. There is also apprehensiveness about new age alternatives, specifically regarding the cost, which also prevents them from accepting these products. So our biggest challenge is to make them understand the value of the product, beyond the price.

Moreover, women, specifically, are very apprehensive of investing in their health which is seen even in the nutrition industry.

I: What has been the most uplifting part?

S: It’s the moments when our customers come back to us and tell us that they had a good experience, how they were facing a lot of issues with the previous products, and how our products have made their life much better.

When we go and take some sessions, young girls come up to us and ask so many questions. When we conduct the awareness sessions, many don’t talk in the beginning. But towards the end when we see them raising their hands and asking us questions and openly talking, it makes us feel that we have made a positive impact. This is still such a taboo topic in India so if we can help people speak about it, that feels like an achievement.

I: If you had any advice to give entrepreneurs, especially those starting something during the pandemic, what would it be?

S: The most important thing for entrepreneurship is passion. It is important to ask yourself if you are really passionate about what you’re trying to start because entrepreneurship can be a very exhausting process that requires a lot of time and energy. You will need to have the passion to give it all. However, it’s also a very fulfilling journey.

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